Portable Magic by Emma Smith

Portable Magic book cover

I learned of this book through one the many book-focused email lists I subscribed to. It interested me as a history of the book and another in my category of “books about books”. It wasn’t quite what I expected. It turned out to be more a collection of essays than a coherent, sequential history of the book. In any case, I mostly liked it.

The essays cover such topics as Gutenberg and the beginning of books, books as Christmas gifts, book trafficking, book burning, censorship, and choose your own adventure books. None of these essays is very strong for me. They could be introductions to books that go deeper into such topics. Thus the book is sort of an incoherent primer on the history of books as objects rather than the actual contents of books.

That said, I enjoyed it for what it is. The author is British and the book was originally published in the UK, so that is the perspective for history and publishing. I am not all that familiar with the history of the British monarchy (nor am I particularly interested in it), so that complicated the context for me is some places. But as a quick read on different perspectives on the history of the codex, this might be an enjoyable intro.

My rating: 3/5

Finding the Right Book

The Card Catalog book cover

After reading The Library, I was hoping for something a little more interesting in the realm of the history of books. I found this gem in my read pile and dug right in. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is the type of narrative history I was looking for.

Granted, it is more a history of how books are found in a library than a history of the library itself. It also has the flaw of being mostly about Europe and the United States, though due to the fact that the author is listed as The Library of Congress that is hardly surprising. Most importantly, the prose is both informative and engaging.

The added bonus in this book is all the photos. Yes, of cards from card catalogs but also of books, libraries, and individuals that are the core of the story. This book really brought back memories of time spent with a card catalog drawer pulled out, looking for just the right book. A fascinating look at book history.

A Dry History

The Library book cover

I learned about The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen from a Jeff Jarvis tweet. I was intrigued by his comments and the subject matter of the book and added it to my read pile. I recently finished reading it and have to say that I was very disappointed.

The book is quite dry and very slow. In fact, it reads a bit like a graduate dissertation that was edited for the general public. The feel is that lots of facts were gathered together and linked with spare prose. The prose and the facts are interesting and informative but a long way from entertaining, at least for me.

Another drawback is that the book is almost entirely focused on Europe and the United States. There is no exploration of libraries or their history anywhere else except for the very brief discussion of the Library of Alexandria in Africa. Surely the Muslim world had libraries during the Dark Ages when Europe was basically struggling to simply survive.

As I said, this book wasn’t my favorite. Maybe I came to it expecting too much. I certainly expected more than it gave.

A Mysterious Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore book cover

I recently finished another book from my list of books about books. This one is a novel called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The premise of a story about a young clerk in a 24-hour bookstore sounds downright dull. But there is something strange and mysterious about this bookstore. And it isn’t dull at all!

It is a combination spy thriller and conspiracy, technology and old books, history and the challenges of everyday life. The characters are a bit quirky and unusual, but I bet you will recognize yourself or someone you know in them. So while the story is a bit out there, you always feel connected to it and part of it. It is a fun ride that I recommend.

Connecting Through Books

The Reading List book cover

Recently I’ve been interested in books about books, bookstores, libraries, writing, stories, etc. One of these is a debut novel by Sara Nishi Adams called The Reading List originally published in August of last year. A list of books gets passed around in the Wembley section of London. One of the recipients of this list is Aleisha, a seventeen-year-old reluctantly working at the local library for the summer. An older gentleman named Mukesh come into the library looking for advice on what to read. Thus begins the primary relationship of the book.

The story is as much about the neighborhood and its Indian residents as it is about the people and the books. My one complaint about the story is that it refers to a lot of Indian words, foods, and experiences that are not well-defined or explained in the text. I would like to have better understood what these were. That said, anyone familiar with Indian cuisine and Hindu living will feel right at home.

The story follows the two main characters at they read and discuss the list of books. This may not sound very interesting, but both people learn lessons from each book that they can use in their lives. It is a book about relating to others through the shared experience of reading, and it is beautiful! I highly encourage everyone to read it.

In case you were wondering, here is the reading list itself. How many of these have you read? It won’t matter if you have read them or not when you read this book. The author does a marvelous job of sharing what one learns from reading these books without spoiling any of them. And if you have read them, you will get even more out of the story.

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Rebecca
  • The Kite Runner
  • Life of Pi
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Little Women
  • Beloved
  • A Suitable Boy